Everything Turns

The Basillica de Santiago

The Basillica de Santiago

In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away.  Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.

When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.

The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.

One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.

We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.

In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!

Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.

The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.

Tillamook ice cream--a sight to make Oregonians smile.

Tillamook ice cream–a sight to make Oregonians smile.

In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.

That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.

I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.

Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?

By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.

I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Oregon.gov Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”

She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”

My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?

Beginning at the End

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot--"Shank's pony". Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot–“Shank’s pony”. Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I’m home from my long hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. In my three weeks away, I went from the northern tip of Oregon, near Astoria, to the small town of Yachats, almost halfway down the coast. I took the bus around some bays that would have forced me onto on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101 for miles and miles, and even so, walked about 165 miles.

The perfect ending of my time alone unfolded spontaneously—a mini-family-reunion in Bend, Oregon. I left the coast by bus on Friday and, in the kind of providence that seemed to meet me all along the way, Friday was Customer Appreciation Day and we all rode free! I spent the weekend with my sons, their wives, and the two eighteen month olds, who were so dear, even as they struggled with how to share books, a stuffed monkey and a grandmother.

While in Bend I walked again on the Central Oregon canal that so comforted me as Mark was dying. The Cascades stood bare and gray—did they have so little snow last fall? I only remember them after the snow began in early winter.

The beauty of the Oregon coast is the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

The magic of the Oregon coast is in the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

I have just come back inside from days and days spent out on the beaches or on the forested headlands of the West Coast, not surrounded by what we have created but by what God created: the ocean sloshing restlessly on the edge of land; the deep forested headlands made from volcanic flows from as far away as Idaho; the moon, which started full on the first day of my walk, then went dark, and was making its way back; the sun, that warmed every day and then dropped over the far edge of the sea every evening. 

“God has such a positive personality,” I found myself thinking. Where do our difficulties, our sorrows, our cancers come from? Theologians, philosophers and myth-makers have struggled with the source of evil for millennia and all the definitive answers they develop seem to evaporate just as quickly with the turning of times and cultures.

I don’t understand tragedy. What I do know is that my spiritual practices and the divine presence I’ve experienced have given me strength to go through my grief, and they promise to return me to peace.

Walking five to fifteen miles a day with a thirty-five pound pack on my back, I had lots of time to think. School was starting up back in the Oregon towns and cities, so most of the time I had the beaches and forest trails completely to myself. I countered my tendency to obsess by singing as I walked, or by praying my contemplative prayers of releasing what I can’t control and accepting my situation just as it is, committing to wait patiently for my future to unfold.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here's the link.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here’s the link.

On some of the headland trails, the walking got so tough there was no room in my head todo anything else but tell my feet to keep going. That’s a gift walking has given me throughout this grieving and reshaping year, relief from my constant cerebral activity.

I’m home now. Tremendously grateful for my house in Portland, for the abundance of food and the ease of preparing it, for my comfortable bed, and for my community, the family and friends I can see and those I can’t see but can still communicate with. I do feel a rite of passage has taken place; I am more ready to embrace the new shape of my life. I did also realize that I have one more first-anniversary-without-Mark to face: the anniversary of his death on the 30th of this month. The literature says that these anniversaries will feel less painful as my new-normal becomes familiar. This was my third time to come home from travel to an empty house, and it felt a little easier. I take that as a good sign: peace and joy are on their way back.

Walking My Watershed

Walking the canal along the back of Jesse and Beth’s house in Bend, Oregon, steadied me when Mark was sick. After he died, the mountains to the west, the moon rising to the east, the autumn trees—even as they changed color—stood around me unshaken.

In the spring I discovered that Bend has sixty-five miles of urban trails, and I began walking longer and longer distances. Some days I cried as I walked. Some days I sang. I discovered it’s easy to be emotionally raw in public places because most people aren’t looking, aren’t listening, aren’t out there–the urban trails of Bend mostly belonged to me. And I needed the physical world, the act of walking, my body taking one step and one more step and another one, to balance all that was going on in my heart.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

On Monday, September 8th, I’m going to leave my sweet little house in North Portland and begin a through-hike on the Oregon Coast. The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) is as yet unfinished, a dotted line from the Columbia River estuary to the border of California, fully half of it along the beach. Our coast belongs to us, here in Oregon. There are no fences, no private signs, no such thing as trespassers. Sandy beaches are broken up by headlands that reach out into the ocean—some I will walk around at low tide, some I will hike over, enjoying the views, and some will force me up onto the shoulder of Highway 101.

A warm current swings by Oregon in the fall, and the weather is warm. Relatively warm—this is not Hawaii or California; I am packing a stocking cap and gloves for the evening chill. The moon will rise full at 8:38 on my first night out. I may walk some days in the rain; I’ve packed a poncho. But most days the sun will beat back morning fog, the sea and sky will reflect each other, and the tide will hiss up the sand toward me and pull back over and over, repeating its own peaceful mantra.

I will walk as long as it is meaningful to me, and then I will take a bus back to Portland. This  walk will be a watershed for me, between looking back in grief and looking forward to my new life. It will be my pilgrimage, my rite-of-passage. Maybe I will be given the new dream I need . . . maybe I will be given a new name.

October would have tied off the knot of my first year alone, but it’s too late in the year to be walking, and September is when Mark and I understood that he was going to die. September is when our children gathered to say good-bye while we could all do it with dignity; September is when my siblings come to say good-bye to my husband, who had been in the family since our teen age years, almost like a big brother; September is when I made the shift from wife to caretaker for Mark’s last month. It’s a fine time to lock in some closure.

I have a few twinges of guilt, as though embracing a new life is in some way disloyal. But I know that Mark’s job was to go on to an unknown place without me, and now I have places to go without him.

I’ve borrowed a one-person tent from my brother-in-law, a backpack from a friend and a sleeping bag from a niece. My sister is advising me about a stove and simple-to-cook meals for the trail. I won’t have to live on freeze-dried food alone, because I’ll have access to grocery stores in all the trendy Oregon Coast towns, where I can also spend some nights in motel beds, take showers and soak my feet. But there are some long stretches between towns where I will sleep in state parks, in spots reserved, in true Oregon style, for hikers and bikers.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

I went camping and huckleberry picking last weekend to try out the tiny tent–it’s no bigger than a cocoon for me. When I woke up crying that Saturday morning, I unzipped the bag and the tent and pushed the rain flap aside. All around me tall pines and Douglas firs rose up, as though I was in the bottom of a deep hole in the center of the forest. Peace flooded in.

I remembered that the world is a place which sustains my life. One tree might have been enough, but no, the world sustains lavish, impractical, excessive life, with trees and stones and insects and pine needles by the millions.

For most of the month of September I will be out on the coast alone. I will be putting into action one of my mantra-prayers: releasing the craving for power and control, for safety and security, for the love and esteem of other people. I’ll be walking the coast singing, praying, maybe crying some days; even though they are public beaches, they will be mostly mine for the month of September.



The Darkest Valley

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn staff Christmas party, 1999.

This moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, 1999, in Kenya.

I have a new understanding of the valley of the shadow of death. It is a road walked in shadow. Ahead, on the other side of the ridge, the sun will shine, as it did on the open path behind. But for now, mountains have cast shadows on the valley. The shadows are many; Mark’s leaving is only one of them. Other losses crowd the path. I have a myriad adjustments to make. Sometimes finding my new, single identity feels painful as a birth.

I moved to Portland, Oregon in June. I live alone now, in a small rental house, perfectly sized for one person, a few blocks from one of my sisters and only a few miles from the rest of my Portland-based family. Expressing my gratitude for this house is one of my daily spiritual disciplines, an antidote to the free-floating anxiety I feel about the lack of direction and focus in my life. And since I am back in Portland, I have started seeing K, the counselor I went to after my dad died in 2009, another time when my whole identity felt shaken and I needed help putting the pieces into their new places.

When I said to her that I am afraid I’m doing something wrong–maybe I’m wallowing in my sadness and disorientation, maybe I’m obsessively focussing on the negatives instead of the positives, of which there are many, in my life–she looked surprised. She told me, essentially, that losing a spouse is a long valley.

I had done so much of what I now know is called “anticipatory grief,” I thought this part would go faster. And so many of the “firsts” came quickly–within the first two months Thanksgiving, Mark’s birthday, and Christmas came, and the new year began, a year Mark would never see. Now, with our anniversary on July 29th, the firsts are all behind me.

On Valentine’s Day I was in Kenya, where the European cut-flower industry sheds less-than-perfect roses, lilies, and whole flower arrangements to be sold on the street corners, I bought myself one long-stemmed red rose bud. One for my singleness. Red for committing to love and take care of myself.

I was in Ethiopia on my birthday. Though Mark supported my traveling work, he was lonely when I was gone, and I was gone a number of years on my birthday because March is a good month to travel in Ethiopia. I said to him one year, “Hey, I just realized. When I’m gone on my birthday, I don’t get a present, do I?”

The way he said, “No!” conveyed it all–his unsentimentality, how he hated my being away, his punitive bent. So this year I thought of that conversation and thought Ethiopia was a good place to be, where I didn’t miss someone to make much over me.

On Mother’s Day I laughed, remembering years before, when we attended Kenton Church and our children were young. Throughout April we were invited to order carnations for our mothers–red to honor those still living, white to honor those who had died. In spite of all the announcements, Mark invariably forgot to order me a carnation. One year he dashed up to get me one of the spare flowers as soon as the benediction was over. When he came back and lovingly presented it to me, Miriam said, “Da-ad! That’s the dead-mother color!”

It’s been a gift that Mark was so unsentimental. The “firsts” have not been terribly painful.

This photo shocked me--he is holding his hand just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don't understand

This photo shocked me–Mark (right) was in tenth grade, and he is holding his pencil just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don’t understand.

But the lack of focus and direction; the many, many hours alone, even when I do get together with friends or family during the day; the visceral shock I still feel that someone so real, so solid, so distinct simply isn’t here any more; and maybe a cell-level grief over having watched Mark waste away; these are all still painful. I, who am so verbal, sometimes still wake up sobbing wordlessly.

K reassured me. Her husband died young, of a heart attack, so I know I can trust her in this. She helped me realize that this August may have been rough for me because my body–my spirit–something in me–knows that this is the first anniversary month of Mark’s cancer taking hold.  His pain spun out of control about this time last year. He found himself already too fatigued to put in a dining room window for Jesse, the last project he’d planned to do. We spent a day in the ER. He began to vomit blood. These were firsts I hadn’t thought of, and the first anniversary of his death itself, is still to come at the end of October.

At the suggestion of Kenny, my youngest son, I’ve been organizing the photos of our last ten years into photo albums, and K assured me that facing those memories–I think of it as metabolizing my life with Mark–may make me sad some days, but will ultimately help me go on well.

“ Anything could happen for you,” K said. “You have something we don’t often have once we become adults–an open future.  Giving your grief all the time it needs is part of letting your new life unfold in its own time.”


2012-05-09 03.10.35 Today marks the end of five months since Mark died. The intensity of these months, and their shapelessness, make them seem much longer. But I can see a subtle shift beginning, from the raw shock of losing Mark, to the question I cried out loud as I walked along the irrigation canal in Bend, Oregon at dusk in early fall, when Mark lay dying—what will become of me?

I cried, looking at the magnificent Cascade range: Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson. I cried looking at the moon, and wondering if Mark would still be here the next time it waxed full. I cried watching maple leaves turn scarlet in what people said was the most beautiful fall they could remember.

I wasn’t answered. But I was reassured. No matter how my life was being upended, the mountains stood fast, the moon rose every evening and set twelve hours later, and my heart kept beating even when Mark’s stopped.

I feel that subtle shift now, but I don’t hear the answers yet. Aren’t I too old to start a new life? I haven’t been single for forty-one years, and when Mark and I married I was still reeling from the only other loss that can compare to this one, the loss of Ethiopia. I was still a displaced  third-culture kid, missing family (sisters came to my tiny back-yard wedding, but no parents came), having just ended the alone years of college in the US.

That transition had required me to search for a new identity. It’s what I face again. That transition knocked me down for a decade, at least. No wonder this one terrifies me.

I met a man on my flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi who told me that his mother, at age sixty-six, went on a six month back-packing trip when his father died. “She came back a different woman,” he said. “Don’t look back. This is a time of new beginnings for you.”

I am in a house alone this weekend. That seems an appropriate way to mark the ending of another month without Mark. It is not my house, though—I am in my daughter’s home in Nairobi, and the family is away. Six weeks after his diagnosis, Mark and I sold our farm, ‘my farm,’ I want to say, because Mark shaped it for me. But we both knew I couldn’t manage it alone. We would have been isolated and miserable during his illness. The fields would have grown up and gone to seed, the hay would not have been brought in and bucked into stacks for the winter, the apples would have soured and spoiled on the trees without someone to help me pick them and press them into cider. But I miss my farm terribly. It still grieves me to think that I’ll never again live in a home Mark built to please me.

I am resigning myself that now, part of my new identity will be City Woman. Another part, Alone. I’m praying somehow to find peace in that. I’m praying to find joy. Many parts of many days I spend in joy and peace already. But I’m someone who likes resolution better than process, the arrival better than the road. I’m trying to practice what T.S. Elliot wrote:

t-s-eliot“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”

I hope that the faith and the love are in the waiting, and so I wait on for the healing to be complete.


Confabulation is my new favorite word.  I ran into this word reading about recent brain research. It’s a technical term for how people with brain damage reason, when the two sides of their brains can’t communicate, but it has a broader meaning we all participate in.  We confabulate when we make up reasons for things we can’t explain.  We do it unconsciously.  We don’t admit we’re doing it.  As the wife of a new victim of cancer, I’m a prime candidate for confabulation.

DSC_0528Two weeks ago a doctor looked down Mark’s throat with a scope and saw a bleeding tumor where his esophagus meets his stomach.  The next set of tests showed that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes as far away as his adrenal and pituitary glands.

I read everything I could find on esophageal cancer. Even the very gentle, careful booklet the oncologist gave us says, “Esophageal cancer is hard to contain with present treatments.”  The National Cancer Institute website is more businesslike: “Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable;” and the Society for Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract, blunt:  “Esophageal carcinoma is a relatively uncommon but highly lethal malignancy . . .” The latest tests have shown, to all the doctors’ shock, that Mark’s cancer has already metastasized.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer are obesity, long years of gastric reflux, heavy drinking, smoking.  None of these describe my Calvinist, clean-living husband.  There are two other risk factors. Being male and being over age sixty-five.  Mark is sixty-two.  His only real risk factor is being a man. There has to be some explanation for him to have advanced esophageal cancer, doesn’t there?  I want to shake somebody.  Not him!  Not now!  Then my mind goes to work, concocting explanations for the inexplicable.

The reason people confabulate is that we’re puzzle-solving creatures. What else is science but the drive to observe the physical world and figure out what sense it is making?  We want life to make sense as well—we expect it to make sense—and by confabulating, we force it into some kind of sense-making when it seems not to make sense.

Scientists have a unique opportunity to study this drive for consistency and puzzle solving with people who lose their right and left-brain connection.  They can no longer coordinate input from the two sides their brains, so they’re left with data that seems random.  They’re driven to make that random data fit some kind of pattern.

In one study, people were shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye.  chickenThey were asked to choose another picture that best supplemented the first, and each eye was given a set of choices.  For example, when one eye was shown a picture of a chicken, with that hand people chose a chicken claw.  With the other eye they saw a snow scene with a car stuck in a snowdrift, and the corresponding hand chose a snow shovel.

Then they were shown the picture of the chicken and the pictures of the claw and the snow shovel and asked to explain their choices.  snow shovelThey did not “know” that they had been shown two original pictures, because the two sides of their brains could not communicate.  falconheadThey came up with explanations like, “If you had chickens, you would need a shovel like this to clean out the barn with.”

When scientists study confabulation by asking people why they suddenly did what they had been told under hypnosis to do, the same thing happens.  People don’t say, “I felt the oddest compulsion just then.”  Instead they come up with, and convince themselves of some other explanation.  We are driven to make sense.  We are so driven, that we will go to nonsense to feel that we have made sense.

I believe there is a world of the spirit, one we can’t see, touch or study with scientific instruments. Secularists call faith nothing but confabulation for the inexplicable randomness of impersonal fate, of nature, of good and evil.  How can I be sure that what I have is faith, not confabulation? I can’t, really.  That problem must be why the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews embraced the paradox.  He defined faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A random tragedy has hit my life.  Grief is on its way.  For my faith to persist in the face it, I need to resist the pull of confabulation.  If I insist that Mark’s cancer “make sense,” I may fall into bitterness.  I will be tempted to take it out of the category of mystery and call it an act of God.  My faith that God is present, that God is Love, that the world is intended as a good place for humans to live, will fail.  I will make up reasons for Mark’s cancer, and they will lead me to places that will not bring me peace.

Instead I am choosing to pray—not only for the disappearance of Mark’s tumor and all its seeds, flung to far parts of his body.  I also pray for this event to further our spiritual transformation.  For peace in the middle of this storm.  For sweetness between us to prevail in the presence of pain and grief and opiates—the sweetness that has always been between us, somewhere there, even when we were angry and disappointed with each other.  For faith to hold, even in the face of things I cannot understand.  For the ability to say with the Psalmist: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  For the courage to resist confabulation and ride the wave of faith into shore.


Asphalt and Apples

Ethiopia and Kenya 218

The view of the other side of the valley from the Maji parish compound.

The small rains are ending, and Maji is as lush and fine as I remember it being.  There’s something new in Maji, though.  On my April trip, I ate a Maji apple–we dreamed of apples, and didn’t have them for years at a time when I lived there as a child!

In those days, the only fruit-bearing tree in Maji, over a mile and a half in altitude, was a single huge, spreading plum that grew like the tree of life in the middle of Dad’s vegetable garden.  It had been there before we arrived in Maji, and no one knew where it came from.  Schoolboys scaled the thorny, live fence and stole plums when they ripened just around Christmas time.  Monkeys hid when Dad came around with his rifle, and sat eating plums and taunting him when he went to the garden without it.  And still, the plums came to the house in bucket loads.  Mom canned plums, and we ate them with home-made yogurt year around.

Now Maji has apples.  I was surprised to learn that these highland apples actually require _MG_5220high altitudes to bear.  The project director, Ato Markos, and his Development Department boss are experimenting with six or seven cultivars.  The hardiest of the trees now stand taller than my head.  There are some mid-altitude apple types that do not seem to like the thin, nine-thousand foot air of Maji as well as the true highland apples, and they will be transplanted to some slightly lower valleys.

The evening my colleague Tara and I spent in Maji, after our welcome feast—after we had consumed the chicken wat sauce, the hard-boiled eggs in the sauce, and then, the coup de grace, the meat tenderized in lime juice and boiled in the hot wat sauce—after we’d resisted all the pressure to have our plates refilled again and again (required of our hosts as proof of their genuine generosity), after the delicious aroma of coffee being roasted there in the dining room and the bitter richness of the coffee itself, Ato Markos brought out a plate of apples and a knife.  Most of the dozen of us at the table had never tasted an apple.  I quartered one, and showed everyone how to cut out the core.  We chomped in.  Wow!

_MG_5236In Addis Ababa, a person can buy apples imported from South Africa.  They are small, hard, and expensive.  These Maji apples glowed.  One, in particular—Crispin—was sweet as candy and left my fingers sticky.  Ato Markos had also glowed as he showed us the orchard.  Now we ate and raved over the apples.  He told us that people all around have heard about the Maji apple orchard.  They ask about the apples—when will they come?—as far as Mizan, two hundred fifty miles away and too low for highland apples.  I’d thought maybe we’d soon find everyone in Ethiopia growing apples.  Now the vision of Maji having a market niche danced in my mind!

_MG_5287The other shock was this–Maji town has asphalt!  The road from Mizan to Maji is sometimes fine, smooth gravel, and through some of the towns, wide asphalt.  Jemu.  Shay Bench. Bachuma.  They used to be market centers deep in forests.  Now an asphalt road runs through the towns, and some have cell towers as well.  Now it really is possible that Maji apples could be transported out of the area and become a source of health and income for thousands of people in Ethiopia.

The project is not over—any new project is a prototype, and faces all the challenges innovation brings.  A market plan needs to be developed for distributing the apples.  There is a scab attacking some of the trees.  Are there partners out there who could go to Maji for a week and help with problem solving?  Ato Markos will work with the agricultural department of the Ethiopian universities, but we could also, if we have experience with apple growing, come along side.

Thank you for helping fund the initiation of this project, something that will benefit not only the small band of people learning to follow Jesus in Maji, but will add to the healthy diet options of people for miles around.  We have two more years of commitment, about $10,000 more to raise for the establishment of this orchard.  Maji still needs you!


And some things are the same as ever–if you ever visited Maji, you would remember the evening fog, rolling up the valley to cover the mountain top and muffle the sounds of birds settling down for the evening.

(Thanks to Tara Chase and her mongo camera, for photos.)

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God


African-American Face of Jesus

For Lent, I decided to add, not subtract.  I’m reading the four gospels in a whirlwind trip through Galilee to Jerusalem.  I don’t have time to stop and meditate over every event, command, or statement in Jesus’ ministry, but there are some  benefits to traveling fast.  I see the big picture.  I hear the themes that crop up again and again.  I get a sense of the startling–even shocking–presence of this man who kept turning everyone, even his own followers, on their heads.

I have a lot of sympathy for those followers.  In Luke, Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for a meal and spends several pages blasting him and his friends.  I sure would have winced.

When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon Jesus said, “How long do I have to put up with you?”  Ouch.

And then, after all the other strange, mysterious things he taught them (the first shall be last, die so you can live, love those who hate you–even Samaritans), who among us  wouldn’t have thought he had something other than the literal meaning in mind when he told them he would die and rise again after three days!

But what stuck with me this trip through, especially in Mark and Luke, was all the talk about the Kingdom of God.  When I was young, that was translated as the Kingdom of Heaven, and I was taught what to do to get into heaven.  But what did Jesus mean–what

Jesus the teacher

Jesus the teacher

did John the Baptist mean–the Kingdom of God is near you?  That doesn’t seem to be about heaven.

I started wondering in Mark, two weeks ago.  What is the Kingdom of God?  Last week, in Luke, the question got more insistent.  Then Sunday I hit John–in the New Living Translation, poetry of John 1 is a little easier to understand: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone . . . So the Word became human and made his home among us.  He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

Light?  Word?  The Kingdom of God?  Is near?  Is like a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast, a field with both grain and weeds?  Walking around last week, thinking about the Kingdom of God, I remembered a line from the Messiah.  It comes right in the middle of the Hallelujah Chorus, after dozens of hallelujahs that twist up and in and around each other, the choir suddenly sings in four part harmony, “The kingdom of this world . . . (can you hear the pause, those two grand chords, and the altos coming in alone, a beat ahead of the rest) . . . is become . . . (another pause, dramatic effect) the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ!”

Two thousand years later we wonder, why are we still here, in a “kingdom of this world” that doesn’t look much different (ethically, morally, spiritually speaking) from the world Jesus was born into?  Where is this Kingdom of God we read about and sing about?

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

I’m working on a theory about the Kingdom of God.  I’m thinking about Swiss cheese.  Or–yes, yeast.  (I forgot the baking powder in a batch of muffins last month, and they were the consistency of hockey pucks.)  What if in the same world (the same cheese, the same dough) the Kingdom of God is permeating, wherever . . . I’m thrown back to the line about the Word living among us, “full of unfailing love and faithfulness . . .” wherever the energy released by God’s mysterious presence brings air and light into the heaviness?  Wherever we who want to follow Jesus figure out–or are inspired, literally–to enact some little bit of unfailing love and faithfulness?

African face of Jesus

African Face of Jesus

Or another simile:  maybe I’m an underground  force, like the anti-Nazi fighters in Germany and France, who helped refugees and undermined the Nazis wherever they could.  Maybe, as a follower of Jesus my job is also to live as though the Kingdom of God, the space where God is in control, is near.  To bring air and light to the embattled . . . totally inadequate to the task.  Unsure how to proceed. Trying to keep radio contact with Command Central.

I’m working on getting this mysterious Kingdom of God thing worked out so I can wake up every morning and get there.  Here-but-there.


I Want Something to Spill Over

Dr. Charles Kraft

Recently I heard Charles Kraft, an ex-missionary and a Fuller Seminary professor, say that Jesus didn’t heal or cast out demons or raise people from the dead with his own power, but with God’s power flowing through him. Jesus himself said that–he had power only by abiding in God and doing what God told him to do.  I thought again of his analogy of a vine and its branches bearing fruit because they’re connected (John 15).

What a mystery it is–for fleshly, in-the-world people like me to abide in Jesus.  No wonder the monks and holy mothers went into the desert to concentrate!  But I am reading a journal Henri Nowen wrote when he spent seven months in a monastery, and he found that even in a monastery it isn’t easy to abide in God.

Father Henri Nouwen

He found himself wounded when friends didn’t answer his letters.  He worried that his adoring public had forgotten him.  He felt upset when a particularly warm fellow monk was just as friendly to everyone–was he not special? But instead of stewing on these feelings, Nouwen used his time in the monastery to notice his internal life.  Was his anger hotter, his disappointment deeper, his discouragement heavier than the event required?  Then he took his reactions to God for healing.  That is more than spiritual discipline–it’s spiritual bench-pressing!

My own small discipline of contemplative prayer started around this time two years ago and  opened a connection to God that I had only longed for in my first sixty years.  Sometimes I wonder: why would God wait so long?  I don’t know why, I only pray that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.  Through the prophet Joel, that’s what God promised Israel, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts . . . and you will praise the Lord your God . . . then you will know that I am among my people . . . that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.”  It’s what I want, too.

Another story to share with you–a friend, working in Indonesia, learned of a ministry of prayer that was hugely effective with the Muslim women there.  She went to her colleague and asked, “Will you teach me how to pray with people like you do?”  The other woman said no.  “You can’t pass on what you don’t have.”

This has haunted me ever since I heard the story.  What do I have to pass on?  Then she went on:  “I’ll pray with you, and what God does for you will spill over into whatever ministry you have.”

This is what changed Peter and John–what Jesus taught and showed them transformed their lives and spilled over.  When they, ex-fishermen, spoke to the Jewish Council in Acts 4, the learned men were amazed, “for they could see that they were ordinary men,” (the word for ordinary men in Greek is the root for our word idiot).  They recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

Girls sing in a rural church in Ethiopia

This is how the church in remote parts of Ethiopia has grown–people set free from curses and taboos share their liberation with their neighbors.  People are healed, and everyone takes notice.  Demonic activity is banished, and the whole community is blessed.  Surely this same God is here with us in the United States in the 21st century, ready to transform us and spill over.  Maybe the ministries will look different–we don’t see evil spirits working in our lives these days.  But we  just as much need to be set free from greed, anxiety, addictions.  We need to be healed of abuse, disappointment, depression.  We are as much in need of God’s shalom as Jesus’ contemporaries, and as our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

I believe that if I can abide in Jesus even a fraction of the way he abided (abode??) in God, something new will happen in my life and I will have more to pass on.  That’s my journey.

Join me?  Here’s a link to Father Keating introducing centering prayer.  It’s where I started.